A genus of about eleven species of spectacular late-summer flowering deciduous trees, mostly of low spreading habit, which were introduced to this country in 1726, from the E.United States, being native in N.America, the Caribbean and E.Asia.
In London the most popular is C.bignonioides or the Indian Bean Tree, occasionally called a cigar tree, which can be found in many parks, and can tolerate city pollution. It is a medium sized tree with exotic scented white flowers, with yellow and purple markings resembling fox-gloves, its leaves are broad and heart-shaped. The beans, which form after the flowers, and hang pendulously, are long (18cms) and slender brown-green pods which contain many small flat seeds with wings attached for wind dispersal. These pods generally remain on the tree until the following year when they open with clicking sounds in the wind before dropping. This year has been an exceptional one for the flowers of this species, all across the capital.
Because of their large leaves these trees provide superb sun shade and also excellent shelter from rain, making them popular with birds - especially, and rather unfortunately, with parakeets, another burgeoning pest. This tree is happy in most soils but prefers good drainage.
There was a magnificent Catalpa which grew in the Chaplain’s Garden (now part of Dulwich Picture Gallery garden), photographed in 1917, when it was already large and mature and enjoying a sheltered spot.
Other splendid examples, of different ages, can be found in our local parks and the C.b. ‘Aurea’ is the Golden variety, which can be seen at the cross-roads of Dulwich Common and College Rd., and one of the most recently planted is in the Village as a memorial to Mark Evison, so tragically killed, aged 26, in 2009 in Afghanistan. Another good example is in the garden of St. James’s Piccadilly, planted in 1923, opposite the Royal Academy of Arts.
The name is a corruption of Catawba, the Native American name for these trees, whose wood was sometimes used for the tribal totem pole. The oldest Catalpa of 150 years, is in the graveyard of St Mary Butts, in Reading, where I was born.
Correction (from the Spring 2012 edition of The Journal)
At the time of writing about Catalpa trees in the Autumn 2011 issue, it was thought that the village tree planted in memory of Mark Evison was a Catalpa. It is now found to be a Paulownia, easily confused in the young state, and as such is rather more appropriate in the village position that it occupies. We can already see the buds of the mauve foxglove- type flowers, which blossom in May and are said to have a lovely scent.